The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Dark Side of Peace Corps

I'll preface this blog with this: I'm not quite sure how this will turn out or what exactly I'll say. I would like to say, first of all, that this is not meant to be completely negative, pessimistic, or ominous. My intention in writing this is simply to show you a side of Service that few know about and even fewer can understand. Secondly, this is mostly unedited and free-flowing.

I've realized over the past few days that my blogs have been mostly event-oriented with any negative aspects of my Service completely neglected or sugarcoated over. This, coupled with the Peace Corps Policy mandating that Volunteers stay politically neutral and level-headed in any and all communication, has led to what you've been reading for six months now (Yes! It has been that long!).

When you're applying for Peace Corps, they tell you it is the hardest job you'll ever love. At the time, I'm sure none of us doubted it would be difficult, or that we'd love it (most of us, at least).  We knew full well we would leave behind the relative comfort and richness of America for some poverty-stricken corner of the world. What we didn't realize is in just how many ways we were rich.

When we landed in Kigali six months ago, the immediate effects were simple. Sleep deprivation from a 14-hour flight, shock and realization at the physical reality of Rwanda. Physical discomforts. Getting stuck in the arm for some improbable disease. Sitting in an uncomfortable, hand-made wooden chair for another two agonizing hours. That moment of utter disbelieve that the last year of your life has culminated to this, to these trials and tribulations, these extreme extremes. The path that was ahead of us six months ago was, albeit long, an exciting one. One where every corner brought another new surprise, even after you felt like nothing would ever surprise you again after what you've seen. I like to think of this as a 'honeymoon' phase. We show up here, having idolized and idealized what this life would be like. We (I) had these ideas of grandeur, of sleeping on dirt floors, bathing in rivers, being the 'cool' Peace Corps Volunteer who had been there, done that, and lived every awesome experience you could possibly imagine.

The first riches we had stripped away were not these physical comforts we see as 'necessitates' in the States. The first things we lost were the things it would ultimately take us the longest to realize they were riches in the first place. Prior to landing in Rwanda, my training group 'staged' in Philadelphia. Prior to flying off into an African sunset, I stood in the airport in Minneapolis and did what I now understand to be one of the hardest things in my life. I stood there, literally the final boarding call for Philadelphia and the Peace Corps being called throughout the terminal, and had to look my kid sister, my father, my mother, my whole family, essentially my whole world at that moment, in the face and tell them goodbye for 27 months. For them, there was no choice in their reality; they couldn't stop me from going. They had to accept the fact that I was leaving. On the other hand, I made the conscious decision to 'jump,' knowing full well that there would be no one to catch me, that, for the lack of a better metaphor, it was fly or die. They can write this off as 'he's doing what he wants to, he's making the world a better place, he's making a difference, he's doing this for a reason.' I, however, have to live day-to-day with the question of 'what the hell am I doing here?' No amount of soul-searching, and no measure of resolve, can completely stop this from happening.

When you join Peace Corps, you will be willingly subjecting yourself to certain things, 'extremes,' if you will. A lot of these will be physical. You will have insomnia. You will get sick. You will vomit on a routine basis. Chances are, you'll succumb to some disease (or three) that would have potentially been extremely serious if you hadn't paid attention during training, If you weren't given health care that far exceeds that given to your community members. At first, a full-night's sleep will seem impossible (especially if your country has a sizable Muslim community that cherishes 4:30AM prayer calls). This will change over time, but can (and will) revert to deprivation at the drop of a hat. You will sweat. You will cry (in the privacy of your own home, that's not usually kosher in public). You will bleed. You will marvel at the sheer amount of mucus your body can produce in six hours. You will be able to scrap the dirt, dead skin, and God knows what else off your arms with your fingers. Your hair will be absolutely disgusting (bring a hat), and there'll be more dead skin on your scalp than on your arms (if that's possible). And these are just the physical changes that will happen.

The far darker side is the mental effects. For all intents and purposes, you will feel more alone than you have ever been, felt, or dreamt of being in your entire life. Sure, you will be a 'member of your community,' insofar as a 20-something foreigner with a very limited knowledge of their language and even less understanding of their cultural norms can integrate into a community which is physically and emotionally homogeneous.  Let me say again: You Will Cry. You will cry, you will want to curl up in your empty bed and scream for the 'simple' things in life. You will want somebody to hold you, to just wrap their arms around you and pull you into them. There will be days when you feel like you are empty inside, there will be days when you feel like going nuclear and destroying anything you can get your hands on, including your neighbors, students, colleagues, and yourself.

Talking with friends and family in the States helps, too. But only to a certain degree. Some days a call from mom or news from your brother is exactly what you need to persevere for another day. But you'll get this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that, for as much as they can say they understand, and as much as you'd love them to be able to, they cannot. Confiding in your parents, purging your emotions to your old friends, and talking to you loved ones can only get you so far. Sure, you can build up fantastic relationships with your community-members, you can get to know them pretty well, and you can confide in them and become really good friends with them. But in the end, they still cannot fully understand what you're going through because you do not share the same cultural connotations (just like between you and your family).

In the end, the logical place to turn to aid your emotional well-being is your fellow Volunteer. But, just like everything in Peace Corps, it is not that simple. Yes, these people understand what you deal with on a day-to-day basis. They were there during the 11-week trial that was Pre-Service Training. They, too, have chosen to fly or die. However, they are obviously dealing with their own problems, their own nuclear time-bombs about to detonate. And if you put yourself too far into the hands of another Volunteer and if you are unable to stop them from going nuclear, you'll get burned just as bad. When it comes down to it, regardless of how counter-intuitive this is, we all left behind the majority of things that made us happy when we came here. Once here, it becomes so tempting, so easy, to allow your happiness to rely on a single thing, a single person, a single ability. Then, just as you feared, that solitary thing that makes you happy and is what keeps you sane is gone. You will have the darkest, coldest winter in your life, even if you're 3 degrees away from the Equator. You'll learn you're lesson; that a life revolving around a sole object or concept it's a life devoid of any protection, lacking any real emotional security and that yes, for 6 months you might be able to play fast and loose and come out ahead, but the stakes will get too high, the game too rich for your blood. The House always wins in the end.

Peace Corps service is all about these extremes. As dark as it is, perhaps even masochistic on many levels, this is why we signed up, right? We tell ourselves we are here for some noble purpose, that we are not here to find ourselves but to lose ourselves. To change who we are at the very core. Make no mistake; Peace Corps will change you, hopefully for the better. But this is not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed. There will be times when you want nothing more than to quit, to say 'screw all of this' and go home, curl up on that comfortable couch, watch The Daily Show, eat as much food as you can see, and never move ever again. But what we are really here for is to take the punches, not to roll with them. Rolling with the punches assumes you can see them coming and avoid getting hurt. During Service, things will come from the left just as you were so preoccupied by what was to your right, slamming into your head and sending you sprawling. When you finally pick yourself up (and you always will), you'll look to the left just in time to see…nothing. Whatever knocked you down so hard was so minute, so trivial that it begs to be laughed at for even affecting you. Peace Corps service is a time when ants can topple giants. Most days you'll feel like the giant; on top of the world, having it all because you chose to be here. Then, BAM! An ant grabs you by the collar and roughs you up a bit. Then, after the ant's got the better of you a few times, you'll realize the truth. You are not a giant. You are an ant, and just like the ant brought you down, you can bring down your giants, the massive black holes that try to consume your heart and mind, that suck up all the positive energy in your life and spit it out as some unrecognizable, twisted, evil version of the world. I think that metaphor may have gone too far…

It is impossible to compartmentalize your emotions and feelings here. Attempting to bottle them up and put on your 'game face' will only make it worse. Those of us who claim to be expert compartmentalizers will simply be able to hold out longer, but they will eventually crack just like everybody else. At the same time, you cannot risk wearing your emotions on your sleeve. You have to allow the bad things to either roll off your back or limit their expression to the privacy of your own home all while actively seeking the positive things (the reasons we came here in the first place) and allowing them to seep in. Holding back your emotions in a situation like this makes implosion only a matter of time. Above having to cry, you will need to cry, sometimes for no reasons. Some days you will not want to get out of bed (and it's not because you're too comfortable, trust me), some days you will not be able to fall asleep no matter how many drugs you take or how early you have to teach in the morning.

The only constant in this life is that nothing is as it seems it was, is, or should be. If it feels like rain, put on sunscreen. If you feel on top of the world, bring a parachute. If they tell you classes start Monday, don't bother showing up 'till Thursday at the very earliest. Whatever you think will happen will not and no matter how creative your imagination is, you will consistently be baffled at what actually does happen, at the seemingly random occurrences and outcomes that meld together to blow your mind every night. Daily events will seem like something out of a bizarre dream, yet your new reality won't hold a candle to what your subconscious mind can now conjure up while you're sound asleep. Plus, I'm pretty sure our anti-Malaria medication (Mephloquine) is actually just a mild hallucinogenic designed to keep Peace Corps Medical Officers and Psychologists employed.

Peace Corps Service is a rollercoaster. There will be ups. There will be downs. There will be times when you feel like you are in free-fall and you start to question the engineer's decision to make the safety bolts for your restraints out of brass instead of stainless steel. You will feel like you will die. But you won't. The only guarantee is that you will rise up again, only to come rocketing back down until that day comes when you pull into the station and the only thought that pops into you mind is "Wow, what a ride.' Unless, of course, you're bowels weren't as strong as the rest of you. But, hey, Peace Corps for the stories, right?

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome


PS: Don't take this too seriously. And for the love of God (sorry mom), don't question my physical, mental, or emotional well-being or sanity. What Peace Corps Volunteers world-wide need is to know that the ones they love are behind them all the way, not that you're worried. They need to know you are there for them and that, above all, you care about them.